Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Response to CP(ML) Liberation on nucelar energy Part I

This article is a guest column by Donald Vaughn. Is it written in response to the an article in Liberation magazine published by the Communist Party if India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation, a large, left-of-the-official-Communist Party of India, grouping that has several tens of thousands of members. The article is here and Left Atomics urges it's readers to take a look:

--D. Walters

The article itself is very long so it is perhaps best that I break up my reply per the sub-title sections of the article.

--D. Vaughn (D. Vaughn is a former power plant operator in the United States and Mexico, a union activist, socialist, and nuclear energy expert).


As part of this I would like to introduce my thoughts on the question of nuclear energy, energy in general, and the productive forces as it relates to breaking out of the squalor of neo-colonial capitalism that India, exists in.

India, of course, is not Bangladesh or Bhutan. It is, in fact, a country that shows the contradictions of semi-industrial development weighted down by almost feudal relations in the countryside, where most of Indian's population is tied too. India is closer to Indonesia, China and S. Korea, perhaps, than the 'very underdeveloped' countries we see in other parts of Asia.

The basis of understanding the development of the productive forces of the political-economy of society, most notably capitalism, but is true for socialism as well, is that these forces were developed in large part because of the advance of scientific technique, organized for capitalism, for the purpose of better appropriating surplus value from the working class and the peasantry. We all know this as students of Marx, but something is often missed in the minutiae of examining Political Economy, and that is how the physical economy of capitalism, of humanity in fact, has applied science to achieve the aims of development of the productive forces. It is my belief that the material physical basis of the socialist mode of production will require yet another quantum leap in the physical economy of a collectivized society.

Nothing shows this more than in energy. Historically, it is the ever more abundance, availability and usage of energy that has allowed the productive forces under any mode of production to advance. Indeed…if one can sum this up, it is the human ability to tap the density of energy forms that has allowed humanity to advance from human and animal power to wind power, to water power, to steam, to electric energy generated by yet more increasing dense forms of energy: from wood, to coal and then diesel & gasoline, to atomic power. At each step of the way we find the density of energy to be a determining importance as to the efficiency, cheapness, and accessibility of utilizing that energy. Every historical leap in the development of the productive forces has utilized this technique to propel the forces of production ever faster, and ever wider. Denser, more efficient, more abundant.

This is not to say capitalism uses it wisely. The amazing engineering that goes into an airplane, under capitalism, is used equally to drop bombs on the masses as it to market seats for sale to take these same masses from one place to another. Socialism and communism of course will put all these human engineering achievements for the use of humanity and not for it's destruction.

Thus, in my opinion, anything that works against this direction falls into a reactionary camp, or, at best, an ignorant one, diverting the revolutionary movement away from the techniques and productive forces that are a prerequisite for ending of exploitation and war.

Part 1:

[Liberation comments are in italics, my responses are in normal type-DV]

Can nuclear energy really replace coal and oil, light up our homes, run our trains and trucks?

Today, nuclear energy generated by India’s 17 reactors accounts for less than 3% of India’s total electricity-generating capacity. Even according to the optimistic (and possibly inflated) estimates of the Government, nuclear energy even after the Deal will only account for 7-9% of India’s total installed capacity by 2020. Electricity in India (and much of the world) comes from coal, not nuclear energy.

The actual "position" of the Congress government is this: They want to build 20,000 MWe nuclear capacity to be on line by 2020 and 63,000 MWe by 2032. It aims to supply 25% of electricity from nuclear power by 2050. Recently they announced that the ultimate goal is 450,000 MWs or, 400 large nuclear reactors.

It is a fact that about half the worlds electrical energy comes from coal. But no on claims any differently. It is also a very bad thing that coal produces half the worlds power. More people die from it than any other source of energy.

Secondly, nuclear plants take far longer to build than thermal power plants and gas-fired plants.

This is true. But natural gas, which India has very little domestic supplies, fluctuates wildly in price and availability. More importantly, it is very dangerous, with far more people dead from natural gas accidents than nuclear. Lastly, even though not as bad as coal, it is a major CO2 emitter, something of concern to climate scientists.

Thirdly, nuclear power has very high capital costs, and is necessarily centralised: i.e you cannot have a nuclear plant in each region or even state. Therefore, there is no way in which electricity generated in a nuclear plant can be used to supply electricity to homes all over the country! Logically, a few such plants can augment total electricity generation and thus help supply electricity to substantially larger number of homes.

This is not correct. First, the fact that nuclear is "centralized" only means that it is produced in reactors ranging from 250MWs to 1700MWs. In other words, exactly the same as that of natural gas and coal fired power plants. Secondly, nuclear power plants can be built almost anywhere with only earthquake faults the really determining factor. Unlike coal and natural gas, the former has to be built near river or rail lines and the latter near existing natural gas lines (or have them built at great expense) nuclear is tied to none of these factors. Yes, nuclear runs better when located on the coast or large bodies of water, but that it true for coal and gas as well.

Secondly, as China is proving and many developing countries, the building of high voltage DC lines can 'wheel' power great distances without line loss, thus allowing for actually more centralized power station with lower transmission costs.

Lastly, the French provide power their homes with nuclear generated electricity from their state-owned electric corporation (set up as a victory by the communist and socialist lead post-WWII strike waves there). 80% of their homes are provide with power generation from nuclear fission. Surely India can do the same.

In India, the main shortage is for power that can be generated during times of ‘peak demand’ – say in the evenings in homes. The cost of electricity is usually determined more by the capital cost of power plants (i.e the amount it takes to build them) than the operating costs. The capital cost of nuclear reactors is very high and these reactors, for technical reasons, cannot be shut on and off at will – therefore they are unsuitable for supplying short bursts of peak demand power.

This is simply not true. It all depends on the kind of fuel a power plant runs on. The cheapest to build, by far, for baseload and peaking power are natural gas fired gas turbines. They are also the most expensive to run as they consume vast quantities of gas, in India's case, from imported natural gas. In the U.S. and Europe, gas is the most expensive form of power there is because the ability of suppliers to tighten supplies.

Secondly, the goal of the nuclear industry is not immediately to replace 'peaker' power but baseload, 24/7 365 days a year power that is required to keep the grid going. Nuclear power has very expensive upfront costs but the lowest of any baseload operating costs because fuel is such a minor part of the overall cost of the plant.

We all know that a major factor in hikes in prices of essential commodities is the rise in the price of diesel, which is used in trucks which transport essential commodities. Trucks cannot run on electricity, can they? Therefore the Government’s claim that nuclear power can replace diesel and reduce our dependence on steeply priced oil is bogus.

No, trucks do not run on electricity…yet. The Chinese are building small electric trucks and over the next 20 years, they should take up a bigger and bigger percentage of trucks on the road. But of course what applies to nuclear also applies to every form of generation regardless of the source. So the issue, for now, of diesel energy is not applicable to the discussion.

Finally, nuclear energy can generate only electricity – obviously we will still need other kinds of fuel for transport, fertilizers, petrochemicals etc... Enhancing our own indigenous coal production and oil exploration; and the Iran-Pakistan-India Gas Pipeline are therefore far more trustworthy and real sources of India’s energy security than any Nuke Deal.

And this is why nuclear is so superior to other forms of generation. India generates about 20% of it's electricity from natural gas and oil. With nuclear these can be used as feed stock for the important production mentioned above. For every MW produced with fission power, means more gas and oil for better use of these very valuable commodities. So there is a direct effect on these other deals. It is important here, however, that I'm not writing about the "Nuclear Deal" per se (the 1-2-3 Agreement) but of developing India's indigenous nuclear industry.

As we have seen above, nuclear energy cannot substantially reduce our dependence on oil, gas or coal. If so, does it make any sense for the UPA Government to drag its feet on negotiations with Teheran and Islamabad on the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline, for the sake of the Nuke Deal with USA?
Can it benefit our nation to damage or endanger our good relations with oil-producing countries of West Asia (from whom we’ll have to keep buying oil) in the name of ‘strategic partnership’ with the USA?

You have not shown this at all. Nuclear can replace the number one pollution technology in the world: coal. It can be assumed, world wide, not only in India, that every nuclear plant built (440 world wide) represents a coal plant that was not built. Coal kills hundreds of thousands of people a year through particulate pollution, which causes all manner of respiratory illness's. It is the leading cause of mercury pollution in the world today as well as a huge emitter of other heavy metals…including uranium (a component of coal). And, of course, it is the largest stationary source of CO2. Nuclear can help phase out coal unlike anyother other form of non-carbon electricity.

--End of Part I--

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